30 December 2012

Ethiopia: Where Meles Meets Mengistu


A social structure that inculcates mediocrity always settles for the little achievements of individuals, regardless of their social status. My close friend, a language teacher by profession, dubs this, 'the culture of living for clapping'. We, Ethiopians, seem to be swamped by such cultural strands.

Anyone who watches the lone national television would say the same. After the death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the official line has become, to 'realise the vision of Meles'. It almost seems as though the nation was in a long overdue daydream, whilst Meles was thinking.

There is no denying that Meles was indeed a thinker. He rolled out several policy documents that sparked economic growth locally and enhanced the status of the nation internationally. His was a life full of reading, tinkering, debating and, of course, listening.

Even the achievements of Meles, though, could not have materialised without a favourable social structure. As the saying goes, there cannot be a good leader without good followers. The Ethiopian culture, however, pays little attention to the traits of followers.

True, Meles was the lone thinker within the ruling-EPRDF. Most of his subordinates were spending their time cheering and boozing, under the lights of urban centres, as if to compensate for the tough years of the struggle, whilst he cruised through the pages of his numerous books.

Their quiescence is understandable, for they have lost their pacemaker. That should not directly translate to the rest of society, however. After all, a society ought to have as many pacemakers as possible. It would not be fair to settle for just one.

Ethiopian culture has numerous threads of individualising success. No different is the case within the political sphere. The public seems to have a very deep culture of relating political success to individual leaders.

I always recall of the case whenever I meet people who relate their sense of nationality with Mengistu Hailemariam, one of the worst dictators that the world has ever seen. I could not imagine how a person, with a love for his country, could sign the death warrants of thousands of people. Had it not been for our culture, which relates success to individual leaders, Mengistu would have been a person whose name was taboo within the social structure.

Eventually, this same culture associates failure with subordinates. It is often perceived that a large portion of the killings, during the previous government, were facilitated by subordinate officials, but not Mengistu himself. I see no seed of truth in this perception, as I understand that the force in play is culture.

What the ruling elite is preaching to us, now, is no better than simply making use of this very culture for its own political purposes. We are being shaped, by all means possible, to relate the successes of the EPRDF-led administration, with Meles, and its failures with the subordinates. By and large, this preaching is a relatively liberalised extension of a deeply ingrained culture.

Observably, this culture benefits the political elite in many ways. On the one hand, it helps to consolidate political support towards a defined line of argument; this line, now, being the vision of Meles. On the other, it helps to diffuse critics. There could not be strengthened critics if the focus is on the many officials that a party nominates, at different tiers, since every individual would focus on the one closest to his or her personal gripes.

If anything, the strength of the EPRDF originates from its ability to employ cultural gaps for its own political purpose. This may trace back to the guerrilla years, where the party livid in close knit communities, within the highlands. Its affiliation with the farming community could also have given its own contribution to the acquiring of this skill.

Nay, it all would have not happened if the social structure was impermissible to unreasoned acclaim or accusation. At the base of the problem, hence, lies a culture that abruptly relates success with individuals and failure with groups.

As much as paying tribute to the good deeds of Meles is very important, his achievements ought to be embraced within a national vision. It would not be logical to treat the vision of an individual leader as the vision of a nation. It ought to be the other way round.

It is up to the ruling elite to shape the whole journey. They ought to stop covering their intellectual emptiness with the vision of their late leader. They have to craft their own agenda, bring it to the light of public scrutiny and live up to its expectations. If at all, that is exactly what Meles has done.

At a broader level, a societal debate on the treatment of administrative success and failure is highly sought. If not, the boring echo of culture will continue to deafen us.

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